Purity balls are enormously picturesque and full of performance, making them a ripe rhetorical artifact. Even the mainstream press cannot resist describing the purity balls with a sparkling, literary veneer. Glamour Magazine, for example, recalls one purity ball
in a chandelier-lit ballroom overlooking the Rocky Mountains one recent evening, [where] some hundred couples feast on herb-crusted chicken and julienned vegetables. The men look dapper in tuxedos; their dates are resplendent in floor-length gowns, long white gloves, and tiaras framing twirly, ornate updos. (Baumgardner, p. 227)
USA Today also contributes its own fairy-tale imagery to the signing of the covenant, watching in awe as
fathers slip "purity rings" on the fingers of their misty-eyed daughters, the elegantly attired couples drift across the floor for a "first dance," this one-on-one time with Dad is referred to as a "date," and wedding cake is served for dessert. For post-dinner entertainment, a corps of adolescent ballerinas clad in white tulle performs a "ceremonial dance" to the song Always Be Your Baby. (Stange, 2007)
This essay argues that purity balls are a rhetorical performance that establishes the ideological foundation for the purity revolution. That is not to say it is the only way in which the movement becomes grounded, rather, purity balls happen to be the most vivid. More specifically, this work seeks to identify purity as the defining ideograph of the purity ball – and the purity revolution as a whole.
To begin, ideographs are, as rhetorician Michael Calvin McGee defined them, those “recurrent words, labels, or expressions that guide and warrant behavior and belief” (Jasinski, 2001, p. 309). Some common examples of ideographs in contemporary American culture are freedom, security, and rule of law. McGee’s colleagues, Celeste Condit and John Lucaites, further explain that “ideographs represent in condensed form the normative, collective commitments of the members of a public, and they typically appear… as the necessary motivations or justifications for action performed in the name of the public”. In the case of purity balls, purity acts as a key ideograph that is deployed to “impart value, justify decisions, [and] motivate behavior” – namely remaining abstinent until marriage (Jasinski, p. 309). “The important fact about ideographs,” McGee notes, “is that they exist in real discourse, functioning clearly and evidently as agents of political consciousness” (McGee, 1980, p. 7). Purity balls are not lacking in this regard.
The functioning of purity as an ideograph here is remarkably clear. It is used most often as the primary motivator for the event’s performance, a “slogan-like term signifying collective commitment” to a certain purpose (McGee, p. 15). The Generations of Light website, in its introduction page, defines a purity ball as a “memorable ceremony for fathers to sign commitments to be responsible men of integrity in all areas of purity,” and that “the commitment also includes their vow to protect their daughters in their choices for purity” (Wilson). Randy Wilson, host of the original Colorado Springs purity ball, asks the fathers at the outset of the gala if they are “ready to war for [their] daughter’s purity;” presumably the noblest of goals (Baumgardner, p. 227). Several organizations, such as Abstinence Clearinghouse, produce and sell thousands of “Purity Ball Planner” booklets and “Purity Princess Survivor Kits” each year, in addition to purity rings, pledge cards, lanyards, and apparel (Friedman, 2006). A Christian youth ministry that provides materials and memorabilia for purity balls hosts an intensive seminar for adolescent girls with the tagline “Purity Power!” (Michaela, 2007). It’s safe to assume, given these examples, that anything associated with purity balls will have the word purity emblazoned on it in a purple, glittering balloon font – further evidence of its ideographic usage and rhetorical primacy.
Further examples abound. The purity pledge recited by fathers at the ball is saturated with the ideograph, reading that “I, [daughter's name]'s father, choose before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity. I will be pure in my own life as a man, husband and father” (Valenti, 2006; Wilson). Lisa Wilson, co-founder of the original purity ball, reflects on the importance of sexual purity, and muses that given her upbringing, “it’s a miracle I remained pure” (Baumgardner, p. 228). Christy Parcha, an 18 year old high school graduate and purity ball attendee, is forgoing college to write about “emotional purity” (p. 236). In Ohio, the pastor emceeing the 2006 purity ball in Van Wert tells attendees that they’re “here to celebrate the idea of purity,” and that the daughters are expected to “remain sexually pure until the day [they] give [themselves] as a wedding gift to [their] husband” (“In praise”). It’s difficult to counter the observation that purity functions as the core of a “dominant vocabulary of motives,” which constitutes a broader structure of “public motives” within the movement that “shapes consciousness” and “enables or constrains decision and action” (Jasinski, p. 309-10), a critical feature of ideographs.
There is a problem with purity balls, and the sexual purity movement more generally, that merits attention at this point; most notably the fact that an overwhelming majority of abstinence-until-marriage promises – 88 percent – are broken. Furthermore, over half of teenagers who take purity pledges end up having sex within three years (Baumgardner, p. 236). This raises the question of the efficacy of purity outside of certain contexts. It’s clear that purity has an enormous rhetorical power to “motivate” and “justify,” but it’s less clear to what extent and in what environments it’s effective. It’s possible that the boundaries of the purity culture do not reach far from the rhetorical center (which is occupied by rituals like purity balls), thus diminishing purity’s “signification” value as a result of “synchronic tension” with other prevailing ideographs in American public culture (McGee, p. 15-16). In essence, it appears that the rhetorical import of purity quickly dissolves when the purity revolutionaries aren’t engaging in it directly – or when “daddy dearest” isn’t watching (Valenti). This is an interesting conundrum: though the purity revolution attracts more and more followers each year, and though purity functions as an incredibly powerful ideograph for the adherents to rally around, the hurrah is very short-lived and the promises are soon forgotten.
At any rate, it’s undeniable that purity, that “ill-defined commitment” to sexual abstinence and the resistance of physical or emotional temptation, is a key ideograph that “provides the basis for a community” of individuals working towards social change (Enck-Wanzer, 2007). Purity creates the ideological-rhetorical foundation for the revolutionary purity movement, and through its performance, purity balls can be seen as a “rhetoric of agitation,” where the members of the movement feel marginalized and thereby compelled to engage in “extra-discursive” practices when more traditional means, such as public address, lobbying, and legislation, are perceived as inadequate (Bowers et al, 1993). As far as the purity revolutionaries are concerned, they are the outcasts in an “ungodly world” of sexual liberalism that bombards their young with erotic images through magazines, television, music, and schools (Courtney, 2004).
Purity balls can be seen specifically as a tactic of solidification, where the “agitating group produces or reinforces the cohesiveness of its members” by invoking purity in all of its forms (Bowers et al, p. 24-25). Solidification is understood to be a “difficult tactic,” because the movement members are “easily energized but difficult to control” – as evidenced by the high recruitment rate and popularity of the purity revolution and the substantial rate of individuals who quickly abandon the cause. Personally, I’m rather skeptical of the efficacy of purity balls in helping the revolution achieve its goals. It’s apparent that these rituals provide an ideological foundation for the broader social movement rhetoric, but it’s also clear that the promissory nature of the galas do little to “control” the revolutionaries and keep them on task – a problematic which may ultimately lead to the demise of the sexual purity movement. The strategies of agitation embodied by the purity ball can “reflect, interpret, convey, record, and sometimes even lead a revolution,” but it certainly is not enough to guarantee its success.